Someone I know on social media recently lost her teenaged daughter to a rare form of cancer. Her pain is palpable and heart wrenching and everyone with whom she’s friends on social media can feel it when she shares photos of her beautiful daughter who, up until about a year ago when she got sick, was vibrant and full of life. I am so moved by the photos of this beautiful child and have offered words of comfort to her mom. I don’t know her pain, but I know and understand that she suffers terribly. I choose my words carefully, not wanting to inadvertently add to her grief. I read the comments others leave and while the vast majority of them are as carefully and lovingly phrased as mine, some are astoundingly insensitive, telling her to stop posting photos of her child, to get on with her life, that the time for grieving is over.
It’s hard to know what to say to someone who’s grieving. We all handle grief differently. There’s no playbook for the bereaved or for those who try to comfort them. Grief is a personal process, a journey that everyone takes on their own timetable – and it’s not for anyone to judge.
Joan Markwell knows the gut-wrenching pain of losing a child. In time, that pain eases somewhat but leaves a scar that can easily be opened with the wrong words, no matter how well-meaning.
“When a mother loses a child, the grief dictates her life,” says Markwell, author of the book Softening the Grief. “You don’t see an end to the pain. As the body reacts to the stress you feel, physical pain follows. Sleep is out of the question.”
“The first time we meet a friend since the death of our child occurred can be frightening,” says Markwell, “It’s not that we don’t want to see them; we just can’t face anyone without tearing up.”
To avoid those awkward situations, Markwell offers up some phrases you should avoid saying to grieving parents and instead offers alternatives:
• “You Are So Strong.” In reality we are exhausted from trying to look strong. Try this instead: “I know it’s hard to be strong right now. I’m here for you to lean on anytime. I have an open heart and time to listen.”
• “Be Glad You Have Other Children.” We may have other children, but they cannot replace the child we’ve lost. Try this instead: “No child is replaceable, but I hope having your surviving children around you helps in easing the pain of your loss.”
• “You’re not the first mother who has lost a child.” Yes, but this is the first time I’ve lost my child. Try this instead: “I know mothers who have lost children and how much they grieved. That has made me aware of what a fight this is for you. You will continue to be in my thoughts.”
• “My child almost died, I know how you feel.” If you said this, you only had a clue about how it might feel to lose a child. Try this instead: “My child had a close brush with death, which was terrifying enough. There can be no comparison to actually losing a child.”
• “Time heals all wounds.” In time the mind covers wounds with scar tissue and pain lessens. But it’s never gone. Try this instead: “I hope in time your pain and grief will soften. Knowing it will take time, I stand beside you for the long haul.”
• “Everything Happens for a Reason.” There is never a good enough reason as to why our children were taken. Try this instead: “It goes beyond reason for any child to be taken from a mother. There was certainly no good reason to lose yours.”
“These awkward but common questions and statements can trigger a world of grief for bereaved mothers,” says Markwell. “When talking to a grieving parent about their lost child, it’s best to take a step back and choose your words carefully.”
And, when in doubt, say nothing at all.
About Joan E. Markwell
Joan Markwell is a small business and real estate owner who resides in Lawrenceburg, Ky. Markwell lost her daughter Cindy – who was a mother of two herself – to cancer in 2013. Cindy’s children, Lucas and Samuel, are a big part of Markwell’s life, as is her son, Kris Fields.
If you want to learn more about softening the grief, get Markwell’s book here: